Justices split on denial of transfer to med-mal wrongful death case

The Indiana Supreme Court has split in the denial of transfer in a case involving a fatal altercation between a psychiatric patient and a caregiver, with two justices dissenting from the holding that ensuing wrongful-death litigation should be brought under the Medical Malpractice Act.

The majority justices denied transfer Friday in the case of Linda Martinez v. Oaklawn Psychiatric Center Inc., 18A-CT-2883, letting stand an Indiana Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Oaklawn Psychiatric Center.

The Estate of Roy Martinez sued Oaklawn after Martinez died from injuries sustained in an altercation with Kennedy Kafatia, a resident assistant. Martinez had defied Kafatia’s order to go to bed, so Kafatia kicked him in the shin.

Martinez suffered a leg injury, and the laceration led to his death.

The estate filed suit under the Wrongful Death Act, but the St. Joseph Superior Court granted Oaklawn’s motion to dismiss because the claims should have been raised under the Medical Malpractice Act.

After hearing oral arguments in June 2019, the Court of Appeals affirmed in July. Then in September, the COA reaffirmed its holding on rehearing, though it agreed in its rehearing opinion there was a dispute as to whether Martinez or Kafatia was the initial aggressor.

Kafatia was charged separately with criminal neglect of a dependent causing death, but the South Bend Tribune reports that he was acquitted.

In a dissent to the transfer denial, Justice Steven David said he would reverse the trial court’s dismissal.

“I believe this is a case that sounds in ordinary negligence,” David wrote in a Friday dissent joined by Justice Christopher Goff. “Further, I believe our Court of Appeals conflated whether the claims fall under the (Medical Malpractice) Act with whether Kafatia was acting in the scope and course of his employment at the time of the incident.”

A jury could assess whether Kafatia committed tortious actions without applying a medical standard of care, David said, adding that making a negligence determination would not be beyond the knowledge of the jury.

“The only tie between this matter and medical malpractice is the fact that Kafatia happened to be employed by a healthcare facility,” the justice wrote. “The provision of healthcare here is asking Martinez to go to bed.

“… Even if (Kafatia) was acting in the course and scope of his employment (there seems to be no dispute between the parties that he was), this does not automatically transform his actions into the provision of healthcare, outside the understanding of the lay jury and necessitating a panel of experts to weigh in regarding the standard of care,” he said.

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